Pehle Makaan. Fir Mehmaan.

A campaign for housing rights of slum and unauthorised colony dwellers in Delhi in the context of the Commonwealth Games 2010.

It is with a hopeful heart that we have embarked on this campaign because it came to me that the expenditure on the Commonwealth Games is in stark contrast to the manner in which we have treated the issue of slum dwellers’ rights to housing. It is also an exercise in pointing out the flawed priorities of the state. I have commissioned the assistance of the group I lead, People’s Action for advocacy on this issue and for on-ground support had the help of United Volunteer Association [UVA] another affiliated group, who have been working behind the curtains on this issue for almost six months now. The campaign which was inaugurated on the eve of the independence day with a press conference at the Chelmsford Club in Delhi has now started taking shape. I am sharing with you the outlines of the basis of this campaign and asking you to join us.

Life in a Metro. Sure!

According to a 2009 study, titled “A situational analysis of the young child in India”, by Forces, a voluntary association,

  • 52 percent of Delhi’s population resides in urban slums.
  • 1500 slums in Delhi house over 4 million people
  • The average population density in a slum is 300,000 people per square kilometre
  • An average dwelling houses 6-8 people, yet measures 6ft by 8ft
  • The under 5 mortality rate is 149 per 1000 live births
  • 1 water pump serves on average 1000 people
  • Many slums have no latrine facilities
  • Where latrines are provided, the average is 1 latrine per 27 households
  • 40% of children are severely malnourished
  • 75% of men and 90% of women living in slums are illiterate

Who’s life is it anyway.

Even as you read this, forty to fifty lakhs of this city’s residents will have defecated in the open or in makeshift latrines while the women will wait for cover of darkness to do so. Earlier in the day, they would have fought with neighbours for a share of water from a tanker or a common tap that was put up after bribing someone in the municipality or through the shrewd kindness of a political vote seeker. Then they would have retired for a few morsels of food cooked inside the same room that they sleep in before they pack off for a day of work somewhere far from this misery and where they will see multi-million rupee flats, and glassy offices with white-collar workers in their shiny cars. Then they will huddle for lunch with their own kind, share their little tiffin with them and be back to the grind. They will be the lift operators you see sometimes, the security guards outside the offices and ATMs’, the peons in your office, the drivers of your bosses’s cars, the cleaners in your office, that man scrubbing the floor of your office foyer. He will be that corner mechanic fixing unfixable cars, that man selling chana paw at the road side, pushing that thela of vegetables, driving that auto or pulling a rickshaw. He will be the blood stream of the business of the city but will always be hidden from sight under the soothing skin tones of the wealthy flesh. He will work more hours than you, earn less than you. His wife and his family will share his stress, make do and eke out a living reminding themselves each day that this is much better than having no job in the village. His children will not be school going or even if admitted will miss most classes, if the teacher ever comes to teach. In effect they will hang around all day long, playing in gutters and mud and returning like cattle to their 5 by 7 kholi only to eat at appointed times. The wife will try to manage the house on what her man spares, when he is through with the drinking and the beating. There will be moments of joy and happiness and the daily dose of television serials on a community TV and the occasional pravachan when it all gets too much. The young boys will rummage and rage, drink and gamble and tease and abuse and while away their time emulating Bollywood junkies. Young girls will struggle to hide their coming of youth, have it worse than the boys and together they will grow to take over a new generation of perpetual strugglers from their parents, with warm memories of life by the side of a sewer, carrying the shit of rich people, and the stench of opportunities that never came their way if only because the state could never find them important enough to spend that money on them. But yes, they will vote for you – for money, for booze – and so they must be kept alive – not too alive, but just about enough to make sure they trudge to the polling booth and walk back to the sturdy security of their destiny.

Who’s problem is it anyway?

I am saying that to seek a change in this situation by seeing or waiting for these people to rise is an almost impossibility. Among other things, poverty and insecurity do not allow you courage to mount such campaigns. No, this must come from the hearts of those who have the sensory impulses of  a co-citizen, from those who are better off, and whose faculties are developed well enough to consider the ideas of egalitarianism, equality humanity, dignity and selfless action. It must come from you. It will come from you, if it comes, and no one else.

It has been said to me that our timing makes this campaign look like an attempt to extort – against the background of the Commonwealth preparations. Hell, why not. If that is the only way this can happen, if they will not listen except under these circumstances, why not. But that charge is also misplaced. That would tantamount to suggesting that the problems of slum dwellers can wait until we put up this grand show with pomp and wave goodbye to some visitors who must not, in the meantime see these people so we get them covered up with bamboo curtains. Isn’t that draconian? Isn’t that an insult to humanity? Isn’t that like untouchability too!

No Sir, we aren’t doing anything wrong. What should have been done long ago is being asked for now. Even today is too late and this must not wait. The CW Games expense gives us an important context to position our argument: and our argument remains: if the state can find this kind of money to put up an 11-day spectacle surely it would not balk at allocating a similar sum for the relocation and/or rehabilitation of slum dwellers. And if the state could build the entire infrastructure for the games in just two years, would it not show similar speed for giving slum dwellers pucca houses. Is that too much to ask ?

We don’t want to make an issue of the games and the corruption it has spawned. Be that as it may and several agencies like the CVC and the CAG are on to it. Let’s not get bogged down in silly arguments anymore. Let’s talk basics. Let’s focus.

Housing is a constitutional right.

Everyone deserves to live in a secure environment. Yes, there have been institutional failures in allowing slums to come up and all that. I have railed and ranted against it myself. But at any rate, these slums will be legitimized, this way or that; if not for constitutional guarantees then for human rights. The reason they are not legitimized sooner is because politicians and parties want to negotiate an election win against any such regularization. Old Congress trick, and we know it all. But let us call their bluff. Let us ask for this one thing; no, two: set aside an equal sum as has been spent on the CW Games and give them decent houses in two years time.

We need to come together here. We need to accept that this city – any city for that matter – cannot prosper while fifty percent of its inhabitants try to find a place to crap every morning and whose children hang about garbage dumps. This is the source of all inequity in society and this is the breeding ground. This is the source of disparity, discontent, desperation and finally dishonesty and crime. This has got to change.

I remember an old saying:

We are in the same boat brother, You tip one end, it rocks the other

Our lives are intertwined. Each inhabitant of the slum is providing a service which you cannot do without. And it goes beyond providing you house and cleaning help. Many of them work as banking agents, security personnel, vendors, merchants, office support staff, workers in city factories, couriers and an unbelievable array of functions that this city needs to function as a whole. Just like us. But more than that, how can it be that we choose for ourselves a comfort that we do not seek for our brethren. Isn’t there something totally uncivil about it? No religion permits that. No decency allows that. At least no Hindu should tolerate that. Sure, what can we do, in most cases, but hey! we can sure as hell ask for a semblance of equality and balance by demanding their rights for them.

Show your support on this page. Shout it on the face book, tweet, blog, write, respond, organize, join our foot soldiers as they go from slum to slum drumming up support or add value by networking and raising support or join us as volunteers. Whatever. Let’s get this part of our cities, and life, fixed.

To be part of this effort, please send an email to or leave a message on this Blog or the Facebook page.


The featured picture is from one of our preparatory meetings in a slum in Punjabi Bagh in West Delhi. earlier this year. Also in the picture are Apoorv Misra and Arun Kaluria of UVA.

One Response to “Pehle Makaan. Fir Mehmaan.”
  1. Harish says:

    I think we all have to join together against CWG which is being held at cost of people of Delhi. The Govt is doing nothing for ordinary people while spending unaccountable money on just the games and call it NATIONAL PRIDE. People of the country are more important than just games. Give them food and shelter before games.

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